BARKSDALE AFB, LA (KSLA) - For more than 60 years, the B-52 has been the backbone of the strategic bomber force. If all goes well, the legendary jet has decades left to live.
"It will approach about 100 by the time we are done, but remember we bought over 800 B-52s at the height of procurement, so these are the ones that had the least amount of hours on them," explained Howard Kosht, Executive Director of Air Force Global Strike Strategic Plans, Programs and Requirements.
Its feat of longevity reflects both regular maintenance and timely upgrades.
76 B-52 H models remain in service, a testament to its iconic design and flexibility.
"The bone structure is solid. There's no issue at all with the structure of the airplane, and beyond that it is just our job to keep it modernized so it can survive the threat," said Lt. Col Berne Gavin, Air Force Global Strike Command, "Because even if it can fly safely, if it's not effective then it's not worth it."
Leaders at Global Strike Command work closely with pilots and maintainers to sustain, test and help modernize the aircraft.
"The enemy definitely gets a vote, and as they upgrade their capabilities, we have to make sure our aircraft can get our airman into the target area, release the weapons to hold any target at risk and back home safely," explained Gavin, "In order to do that, we have to modernize the aircraft. The aircraft came out the 1960s the threats weren't what they are today."
Some of the most recent upgrades coming in the form of communications. In essence, they've given the plane in a digital backbone.
"(There's) High-speed data moving throughout the airplane, we've also added some radios to be able to do classified communications anywhere in the world so they're not relying on line of sight to a certain site on the ground," Gavin said.
Its weapons upgrades mean the B-52 is capable of dropping or launching the widest array of weapons in the U.S. inventory.
"The B-52 can carry up to 70,000 pounds of ordnance. The limitations start to be on spots to hang the weapons, not necessarily the weight," explained Gavin. "You can find anything from stealthy standoff missiles that can go about 200 plus miles, down to a weapon that is unguided and just falls via gravity."
Leaders at Global Strike Command say they've already secured funding for upgrades to the radar system.
"The biggest factor for this is reliability. Our current radar was put in the jet in the 1960s and has only had one minor modification since then."
Also on tap, new engines which will give the jet about 20 percent to 30 percent better fuel efficiency.
"When we get the new engine on the B-52 it won't have to be pulled off for over 25 years, and we've seen that true with the KC-135, when it got re-engined and they've gone 25 years without even pulling an engine," said Kosht, "So the maintenance on these will definitely go down."
While the guts of the plane have been rearranged and reworked through the years, there are still several components linking airmen from generation to generation.
"It's not your grandfathers B-52," said Gavin. "We are upgrading a lot on the aircraft there will be some things, legacy-wise, that remain. Things in the cockpit will remain somewhat unchanged, and as of right now we are still using a drag chute to slow the aircraft down to improve the breaking situation so we can stop the aircraft."
There are no plans to retire the B-52 anytime soon, allowing the heavy bomber to keep its dominance in the sky.